Make Way For A Not So Compassionate Conservative?

It's tempting to view the Reform Party these days as a parody of a third party. It was founded to advance zillionaire Ross Perot's Texas-sized ambitions. But even as chapters sprouted, Perot's share of the Presidential vote dipped from 19% in 1992 to 8% in 1996. Lately, Reformers' exertions have verged on slapstick. Forces loyal to Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura have been wrestling pro-Perot partisans for influence. And names floated as Reform candidates include Warren Beatty and two of America's most prickly figures--ex-Senator and Governor Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and New York developer Donald Trump.

But the laughing stopped on Sept. 12, when commentator Patrick J. Buchanan told viewers he was likely to bolt the Republican Party to mount a Presidential bid under the Reform banner. An articulate leader of the GOP's anti-corporate, anti-Washington populists, Buchanan has demonstrated an ability to meld the votes of abortion foes, America Firsters, and angry blue-collar workers into a populist force that looks deadly serious in Austin. Why? Because the Reform base gives Pitchfork Pat both the funding and the potential troops to snare Presidential votes--votes that will come out of the hide of Texas Governor George W. Bush, the GOP front-runner.

With $12.5 million in federal funds awaiting, a prize secured by Perot's performances at the ballot box, Buchanan would have enough cash for a low-budget campaign. Even if he can't mount a winning White House run, he could well influence the outcome of Election 2000. A Sept. 7-9 survey by Republican pollster Frank I. Luntz shows 21% of Americans would consider voting for Buchanan as Reform's standard-bearer. Two-thirds of his backing would come directly from Bush, the poll shows. An Aug. 15-17 survey by Democratic pollster Rob Schroth puts Buchanan at 16% when pitted against Vice-President Al Gore and Bush. The Buchanan factor causes Bush's double-digit lead over Gore to dip to 4%. In particular, Buchanan costs Bush the votes of white Southern men and blue-collar Midwesterners. That giant sucking sound "makes it a race," says Democratic consultant Dane Strother. "It's going to take something like that for Gore to win."

Buchanan seems willing to play spoiler. "If he goes in this direction, he doesn't care if the Republican Party finishes second or third," says Buchanan campaign aide Bob Adams. Of course, Buchanan still has to win the nod. Reformers will hold their convention next Aug. 10-13 in Long Beach, Calif., and the TV tough guy may have to duke it out with a more moderate contender, such as Ventura or Weicker. But his chances are good. Buchanan's fierce protectionism and nationalistic foreign policy are in synch with many Reformistas' beliefs. "If Buchanan beats Bush in the first debate, he becomes a major challenger," says economist Pat Choate, the Reform Party's '96 Vice-Presidential candidate.

"WACKO YEAR." What happens if he doesn't get the nod? The smirk will fall from Gore's face. If an independent like Weicker emerges, "he makes the Republican candidate virtually certain to win," says independent pollster Gordon S. Black. Why? Because Weicker, a libertarian maverick, draws from suburban independents, who are notably cool to Gore.

At very least, the return of the Reformers will add a volatile new element to what up to now seemed like a staid Presidential race. "It's going to be a wacko year," chuckles L. Brent Bozell III, a former Buchanan fund-raiser who is backing publisher Steve Forbes. But if Buchanan barges onto center stage, you'll have to forgive George W. for not joining in the yuks. He believes the Reform Party insurgency cost his father the '92 election. And now his worst nightmare is history repeating itself.

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